Free snacks. Unlimited paid vacation time. WiFi-enabled shuttle buses that whisk you from your doorstep to the office. It’s the stuff of fantasy for many American workers, but for those in Silicon Valley and beyond, these once extravagant workplace perks are being traded up for even more exotic offerings.
Patagonia now lets its employees set their own work schedules and encourages them to cut out early to catch some waves. Netflix offers a full year of paid maternity and paternity leave to new parents and then allows them to decide whether to return to work part-time or full-time. For its part, American Express offers it’s new parents access to a 24-hour lactation consultant, and mothers traveling for business can ship their breast milk home for free.
This trend has been in full force in the uber competitive tech world for years now, with major players like Facebook and Google one-upping each other with perks like all-day access to chef-prepared meals and other on-site amenities like haircuts, childcare, and even car washes. But with unemployment at its lowest point since 2007, the dearth of qualified candidates and the revelationthat nearly four in five U.S. employees prefer benefits or perks over a pay increase seems to be compelling more companies to offer new or better benefits designed to lure top talent into open positions.
“Companies are very much aware that benefits can be used as a bargaining chip, and they are also an indication of the overall corporate culture,” said Evren Esen, SHRM-SCP, who is the director of Survey Programs for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). SHRM’s annual Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement report shows a direct correlation between employee satisfaction and the quality of company’s benefits offerings. “And so, if there are creative, fun, innovative benefits that a company offers, they’ll want to sell that to show that they have a great culture that will attract talent. It fits into the idea of a total rewards package.”
DO FRINGE BENEFITS INFRINGE ON WORKERS’ PERSONAL LIVES?
But even perks and freebies can come at a cost. While some have proven to attract high-performance workers and improve employee engagement in the past, some experts wonder if the scope of these incentives has crossed a line, infringing on workers lives rather than improving them.
In 2014, Apple and Facebook made headlines when the companies quietly started to foot some or all of the cost of fertility treatments, such as IVF and egg-freezing. The addition of these benefits was part of an effort to recruit and retain talented female employees. While on the surface, the offer seems helpful, attorney Heather Bussing, among others, believes these types of perks can send mixed messages to the workforce.
“When an organization offers egg freezing or gender reassignment assistance, it is usually in response to a workforce that wants those benefits. But the line is tricky,” she said. “If a big software company starts offering egg freezing so that women can work more and delay childbirth, it does send a strong message about the importance of work over everything else, which can backfire. Those of us who delayed having children for our careers know that having children later in life involves complex considerations that go far beyond fertility.”
Esen argues that since taking advantage of any perk is voluntary, there shouldn’t be a problem.
“I think with benefits there is always a crossover, no matter what, into workers’ personal lives. Think about healthcare and retirement plans, which are mainstays of benefits. These both cross over from the professional into the personal,” she said. “But no employer is going to force an employee to use a benefit. It’s the employee’s choice. As long as there is that choice, I think there is less of a question mark.”
Bussing disagrees. “The reality is that very little in the relationship between employers and employees is truly ‘voluntary’ because of the power dynamic between them. When your boss asks you to volunteer to do something, it never feels optional,” she said. “My advice to companies is to make sure they are respecting employees’ privacy and individual choices and to offer a wide variety of benefits that appeal to a diverse workforce, not just to certain demographics.”
Expanding on Bussing’s final point, while appreciated by a segment of the population, some benefits just don’t apply to workers across the board. Paid parental leave, for example, can only be accessed by employees who have chosen – or are able – to have children. So where does that leave their childless colleagues or older workers who are past their childbearing years?
According to Esen, some companies have taken note of the disparity and are looking at leave programs that aren’t for a specified purpose, such as maternity or paternity leave. Instead, they are opening offerings up for more general purposes that could appeal to workers of all ages and lifestyles.
“[This type of leave] is designed so that workers can take time off to do something that they need to do, whether that is time off to care for themselves, time to take care of their parents, or time to do something that is going to be fulfilling. The idea is to have paid time off set aside that everyone can take advantage of,” she said. “This is something that I hope that we’ll see more of because I think it does level the playing field and make all workers feel valued.”
Offerings like the one Esen describes can also protect a company from litigation like disparate treatment claims, Bussing pointed out. A disparate treatment claim is an allegation that an employee was treated differently than other employees who were similarly situated, and that the difference was based on a certain characteristic. Therefore, benefits that appeal only to certain employees – female workers, parents, or those in the trans community, for example – hold the potential for employees to sue for disparate treatment if equal offerings aren’t made available to them.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that while some of the more exotic offerings can certainly be buzzworthy, they aren’t necessarily in line with actual jobseeker expectations.
IS A MOVE BACK TO BASIC WORK PERKS IN THE WORKS?
“The out-of-the-ordinary perks can get a lot of attention – spa treatments, haircuts or tuition reimbursements, for example – but the truth is the perks most people want are more practical than extravagant,” said Glassdoor Career Trends Analyst MaryJo Fitzgerald. “In a study from Glassdoor Economic Research, we found employees care most about core benefits like health insurance, vacation/paid time off, and retirement/pension plans. The takeaway? Employers must think strategically about not only how to best attract employees, but understand what will keep them satisfied and at the company long-term.”
Greg Morton, CEO of the Northern California Human Resources Association, agrees.
“Ping pong tables, free Cokes, and climbing walls are all great, but people aren’t going to stay at a company for those amenities,” he said. “I think the benefits that are most valuable are the ones that transcend work life. Whether it’s healthcare, or paternity leave, or the ability to take a sabbatical, those are profound perks because employees realize that their entire family is doing better because they work for a company that offers these benefits.”
Morton also believes that despite the labor gap, companies might be getting back to basics a bit when it comes to work perks. Morton said that he was inspired by a conversation he had recently with a Salesforce executive who explained that the company designed its new San Francisco office tower with the intention to move away from the tech campus concept.
“Sure, the company is creating an amazing environment for their employees where I’m sure there will be [incredible amenities]. But the woman I spoke to said that they intentionally wanted to be different from a lot of these tech campuses where people come to work on WiFi buses and then have everything they need at work. Sure, all of your needs are met, but you never leave work. That is sort of the whole idea, but eventually it drives the employees crazy.”
With their new building, he said, Salesforce wanted to acknowledge the fact that San Francisco is a beautiful city with lots of great things to see and do.
“Salesforce wants its employees to go outside and enjoy the sunshine and have a great lunch and then come back refreshed to work,” Morton said. “Is it healthy to have your whole life integrated into your work life? No, and I think the pendulum is starting to swing back a little bit.”